Berkeley Magazine, Fall 1998


Chinese civilization often manifests polarities with the West. Americans wear black for mourning. The Chinese wear white. Westerners think of dragons as monsters. The Chinese honor them as symbols of God.

Now Kaipeng Peng, a UC Berkeley psychologist and former scholar at Beijing University, has discovered that the two cultures have different ways of dealing with contradiction. Americans will choose up sides, while Chinese will move to the middle.

Peng's research was carried out on some 500 students in China and America.

"The reason for doing a critique for many Americans is not to understand another's point of view, but to trash it," said Peng.

Chinese folk wisdom holds that reality is multi-layered, unpredictable and contradictory and is in a constant state of change, the psychologist said. Thus, the Chinese do not attempt to work through contradictions.

"This type of approach works very well for interdependent relationships, and helps create a happier life," he said. "Human life is very much about contradictions."

On the other hand, "Western thinking is essential for good science," he said. "You make quick judgments and try to find the truth. Contradictory thinking is not acceptable. The only problem is that you risk being intolerant in a personal situation."

Many people ask Peng which way is best -- the Chinese or the American. Said Peng, "I always say the best way is to use both -- one style for science and another for relationships."

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